A Dish of Apricots

A Dish of Apricots

Rated 5.0 out of 5
5.0 out of 5 stars (based on 7 reviews)

Philip Williams is the Catastrophe Kid. If anything can go wrong in his life, it will. Calamity follows calamity and he begins to believe that his existence is ruled by a malevolent star.

Philip Williams is the Catastrophe Kid.

If anything can go wrong in his life, it will. Calamity follows calamity and he begins to believe that his existence is ruled by a malevolent star. He remains buoyant in the face of adversity until, that is, he finds himself on a collision course with the rogue-star itself.

Philip’s quest for love and freedom takes him from the Welsh seaside, through turmoil in London, to what seems to be a haven in Provence.

“Yet again, Thomson’s prose is full of sunshine and shadows – funny and poignant in equal measure.”

Cover illustration by Elspeth Murray. Graphics by Phil Crow.

Ian Thomson’s previous novel The Northern Elements was the winner of a Chill with a Book Premier Readers’ Award, 2019.

Ian Thomson was educated at Downing College, Cambridge. He lives in Lincoln.

‘Beautifully written as always. Moving, impressive and poignant.’


An extract from A Dish of Apricots

‘Very soon,’ Cerys interrupted, ‘I am going to break Cardi in. Then I’ll teach you how to ride. And Cardi can be your very own horse. How would you like that?’

‘Gwych!’ I said, which means ‘great’, and I galloped around the kitchen on my imaginary horse, my wounds forgotten.

Cerys was adopted too. Her parents had been killed in a road accident when she was two. When Tiwlip and her husband, Cai Williams, discovered that they couldn’t have children, they welcomed Cerys into Plas y Bryn and wrapped her in love. And when she was ten, she declared that she wanted a little brother.

I had been abandoned as a new born baby and found in a Tesco carrier bag in the ladies’ toilets at Chepstow racecourse. Cai and Tiwlip found me through an agency and added me to the family. The police had called me Philip and my new parents saw no reason to change it.

I never knew Cai. He died from cancer when I was barely a year old. It was a tragedy of course, though it brought our little family even closer together. Cerys and Tiwlip adored me and I wanted for nothing.

Tiwlip had been right. The morning after Bethan had decided to chomp a lump out of my shoulder, a huge purple bruise appeared. Though it was very sore for several days, I was very proud of it and would strip to the waist to show all and sundry how brave I was. Since the kitchen was a busy place – Tiwlip’s and Cerys’s friends were always dropping by – I had ample opportunity. I even yanked off my top in the Spar in White Harbour to show the staff and shoppers my now-yellowing bruise. This caused Tiwlip some anxiety, she told me later, because she expected social services to be calling any second.

She and Cerys had to laugh though, when they caught me at the paddock fence, naked to the waist, giving Bethan a gentle telling off. Bethan’s head was low as if she were listening carefully. Her ears twitched.

‘Now, just look what you did, Bethan, you bad horse,’ I was saying. ‘It’s getting better now but it was horrible – all black. You should be ashamed of yourself. I think you need to say sorry.’

Bethan whinnied and shook her head.

Of course, I don’t remember all this, but the story was repeated at Tiwlip’s coffee mornings and whenever Cerys’s friends came by to sit around the Aga, smoking and drinking cans of beer. Cerys would say:

‘And then he said: “We can’t be friends again until you say you’re sorry,” and – would you believe it, Bethan’s head went up and down, like a piston, didn’t it, Tiwlip?’

We both called her ‘Tiwlip’ rather than ‘Mam’ because that is what we had always done and that was how she wanted it. It only occurred to me many years later that none of us was related by blood, though we were closer than any regular family.

Well, the company would shriek with laughter at the story and I would stand there, stuck somewhere between embarrassment and pride, but certain that I was loved.

I can’t remember whether it was before or after Bethan bit me but anyway, round about this time, there was the incident of the nail in my head. I had been playing in an outhouse at Blaen Cwm which was the house of my great friend, Gethin. He had bright red hair and was known at school as ‘The Electric Carrot’. He lived in a big farmhouse at the head of a valley on the road to Llandysul. It was not as big as ours and it was rather ramshackle but I liked its quirkiness.

The outhouse had been a tack room but Gethin’s family no longer kept horses and the stables had been converted to garages. The old tack room was now where old furniture, obsolete agricultural instruments, and other unwanted stuff was sent to die.

We had made a den under an old table – I think it must have been a workbench because there was a vice at one end. We had covered it with a massive tarpaulin and some hessian sacks and we spent the whole day in there, chattering and playing cards. Gethin’s mam had brought us sandwiches and crisps and Welsh cakes and we were as happy as Larry.

Later in the afternoon I saw a flash of pink through the gap in the fabric we’d made to let in the light. It was Cerys in her mini, come to take me home. I stood up to go and there was a sickening pain in the top of my head.

When I emerged, Cerys had just got out of the car and burst out laughing.

‘What on earth have you been doing?’ she said. ‘You’ve gone all red-haired like Gethin.’

It was only when she came closer that she could see that my blond hair was full of blood and her laughter turned to busy concern. She called for Gethin’s mother as I explained what had happened.

A quick examination of the table showed that there was a large nail sticking through its underside and this had gone into my head. I touched my hair – it was horribly sticky.

So with a temporary dressing on my head, it was off to A&E at Bronglais again. The damage was less dramatic than it looked and the nail hadn’t been driven into my skull.

Two years later, I tripped and fell down the cellar steps, from head to foot. The steps were stone and I suppose I could have suffered worse injuries than I did, or even death. As it was, I sustained a very deep cut on my brow, which bled profusely. I have the scar still and a patch where my eyebrow doesn’t grow.

They were getting to know me quite well at Bronglais.

‘An emotional roller coaster: You’re laughing and disaster strikes and then laughter chases the blues away.

As unpredictable as an English summer’s day.’

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Reviews for A Dish of Apricots

Great story telling and a most splendid cast of characters you can't help but love.

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Monday, 27 December, 2021

Adored this book and feel bereft now I’ve finished it. The characters draw you in and are so real they make you giggle and weep and worry for them and wonder what’s going to happen next. It’s also beautifully written and takes the reader on a journey where you can smell and taste the food, savour the wines and glory in the beautiful countryside. I never left my armchair but went to Wales, England and France on a most wonderful journey. Would make a fabulous movie. Can’t wait to find another of Ian Thomson’s books to consume me as several already have, This was my fourth one and every one was a gem in its own unique way.

Linda Purcell

An unusual story that draws the reader in

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Thursday, 11 March, 2021

What an unusual book. At one time, about halfway through, I had to check to see if I was actually reading a biography, so realistic was the way it was presented, especially as it’s written in first person. I was absolutely carried away with Philip, the main character, his mum, Tulip, (or Tiwlip) sister Cerys and all the other colourful characters in Philip’s life. Brilliantly told, so you can’t help liking him, even when he goes off the rails, and you are willing something good to happen for him.

Loved the setting of the house, Cei Gwyn, The Blue Pig pub where Philip is apprenticed, and the house in France amid the sunflowers. I really enjoyed it.

Mrs J

Highly recommended

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Monday, 25 January, 2021

This is Ian Thomson’s fourth novel. It shares with its predecessors the author’s wonderful gift of storytelling, ability to convey a sense of place and faultless ear for all sorts of dialogue. But in some ways A Dish of Apricots is his best yet. It takes us on a journey of remarkable breadth, variety and emotional power.

In his first novel, Martin, the narrator/protagonist is monstrous and cynical, and yet we feel strangely drawn to him. In A Dish of Apricots the author has created something quite different. Here the narrator, Philip, is immediately and obviously likeable, a highly entertaining guide to his world, realistic and modest about himself. He confides in the reader as he would in his closest friend. His childhood in Wales is related with tremendous affection and a wonderful sense of local colour. Its cast of characters are drawn vividly and give rise to some truly hilarious passages.

By the time the character defect which will cause Philip’s downfall is revealed, the reader feels so connected to him that this revelation is nothing short of devastating, even though it has been carefully and expertly prepared by the author. From this point on, we share in his journey to the depths and back again.

As the starting point is a protagonist who is young and open to new experiences and as we follow his progress over the years, A Dish of Apricots can be seen as a sort of Bildungsroman. And, as with the very best examples of this genre, we seem to learn and grow with the character. It may be very different from Martin, but in some ways the thought with which it leaves its reader may be quite similar: that ultimately love redeems everything.

A Dish of Apricots is a novel which will stay with the reader long after the final page is turned. I recommend it very warmly.

- L. Bromley

7 Basic Plots

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Sunday, 17 January, 2021

The critic Christopher Booker claimed that there are only 7 basic plots in literature. In A Dish of Apricots, Thomson gives you the lot in one novel.

1. Overcoming the monster

It is a long struggle but Philip overcomes two, one external and one internal. The first is social prejudice, the other is a pathological trait which I can’t reveal (and nor does Thomson until the middle section of the book) – so no spoilers from me.

2. Rags to Riches

Thomson goes further. Philip goes from riches to rags to riches again. Not quite literally to rags but he certainly hits the skids.

3. The Quest

Philip’s quest for love takes him from Wales to suburban London and all over France, till he finally discovers ‘home’.

4. Voyage and return

See above. Despite his wanderings he often returns to Cei Gwyn. You can take the boy out of Wales, etc.

5. The book is wonderfully funny, especially as he is growing up but there are many rib-splitting moments throughout. Thomson has an eye and an ear for the absurd in ordinary life.

6. Tragedy

Philip’s flaw brings him close to destitution and despair. It could so easily have ended very badly.

7. Rebirth

Philip is the Catastrophe Kid. He comes through it all older, wiser, deeply considerate but there is a kind of boyish innocence about him which leaves him intact.

A novel with all these characteristics is rich fare indeed and yet it reads so easily. What delights is that you think you are reading something pleasantly simple until it gradually dawns on you that you are engaged in an impressive review of the human condition and, in particular, how we judge each other.

- Luke Tippet


Rated 5.0 out of 5
Wednesday, 30 September, 2020

Philip Williams is the seemingly artless narrator of his own life. I found him engaging, even endearing, principally because he is so truthful – with the reader at any rate. ‘To be honest’, ‘to be fair’, ‘to tell you the truth’ are tags frequently on his lips. And yet, for many years he has concealed two essential lies: about his sexuality and…well, to reveal the other would be a spoiler. In one respect the book is a gradual confessional, expiation and redemption. We stick with Philip because he does not lie to himself and does not judge others.

I remember three occasions when he looks into a mirror: once, in a moment of youthful vanity, to admire his good looks; later, he performs a bow to congratulate himself on carrying off a white lie, and on the third occasion, he notices the first signs of ageing. This is just one example of the unobtrusive complexity of this intriguing work.

Thomson is a stylist. His prose is clear and beautifully turned and he renders the rhythms of Welsh, Irish and French idiom with considerable skill. You can hear the characters.

A Dish of Apricots is also very funny. The exploits of Gethin, Philip’s intellectually challenged but movingly loyal ‘butty’, or best friend, had me hooting with laughter. The battle in the kitchen of the Blue Pig between Renzo the chef and Daft Denny, the sous-chef, involving live lobsters is priceless.

The novel is a substantial 420 pages long but it is so riveting that I read it in two sittings.

- Mr Pertinax

Profound, moving and entertaining: A Dish of Apricots beguiles on every level

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Tuesday, 29 September, 2020

The Scott Meredith best-seller outline begins: develop a main character the reader can identify with, give him problems, make those problems big.

Calling a character “The Catastrophe Kid” kick starts this process, and, indeed, Philip Williams has an array of misfortunes. However, he bounces back quickly and generally without malice, readily acknowledging that he was born under a malevolent star and recognising his own faults and inadequacies. His youth is a catalogue of accidents: broken limbs, broken teeth, dyslexia and misunderstandings. He is also gay and Welsh.

These days, we don’t believe that the fault is in our stars (despite the popularity of horoscopes), nor yet do we believe that the fault is in ourselves. Rather, it’s that we are underlings in a system that conspires against us. Of course, it may be a conspiratorial solar system that’s getting us down, but that’s still not the way Philip sees it. He never sees himself as a victim.

Though abandoned in a plastic carrier bag at a race course (“A carrier bag?!”), Philip has a loving and affluent upbringing, and who doesn’t like to see the privileged take a knock or two?

For all this, Philip has our sympathy, at times, even our admiration. He is a loyal friend; he seizes the opportunity to train as a chef offered by a local pub landlord and goes on to do well at culinary school. His adoptive mother Tiwlip is ever hovering, seemingly with a magic wand, and is able to make things happen for Philip. He is also supported by his “sister” Cerys, also adopted. Both become Philip’s enduring touchstones. When he loses contact with them, there is only one direction for his life to take.

On his own, he, quite simply, messes things up. There are no stars involved. He does it to himself – and he does not shirk from that reality. Eventually, he even reveals things to the reader that he – as narrator – has been concealing.

Here is where a word about style is in order. Thomson’s prose is a joy to read. The sentences are well-crafted, the thoughts complete, the vocabulary erudite but not intrusive, the syntax (especially when capturing Welsh and French idioms) well observed (or well heard). With that mastery, Thomson returns to the 18th century device of, occasionally, speaking direct to the reader, and it feels perfectly natural, not quaint.

Lest this make A Dish of Apricots sound like a book only for intellectual readers, it is not. It is fully accessible, amusing and emotional, with an engaging plot that traces Philip and his friends from childhood to late middle-age.

Let me say that my interest in gay matters is about the same as my interest in the Bolivian urea trade. Further, anyone who calls this a “gay novel” is missing the point, almost totally. I would argue that Philip’s homosexuality is incidental. It’s a book about relationships; that they happen, in Philip’s case, to be gay relationships doesn’t matter. Salacious detail is avoided; the book is in no way prurient, and Thomson is clever enough to introduce comic elements, not to disguise what is happening, but to make it possible for readers, like me, to understand what is going on – and what is really going on – without being put off.

And this is where things begin to come clear: this is a book about love.

Love of all sorts: love of family, love of friends, love of horses, the countryside, of architecture and place, love of food and wine. And, it is, of course, about the romantic love of one person for another, and with that goes disappointment, betrayal and the mortality of ourselves.

Dostoyevsky wrote, “Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams,” and so it is for Philip Williams. Except – except for the other, unstated, ingredient that permeates the novel: forgiveness. Philip forgives people who have hurt him. He may never speak to them again, but to him, it is experience, and he learns from it. He is badly bruised, but never beaten, and when he is rescued from his down and out purgatory and returns to Wales, he, like the prodigal son, is forgiven on sight; he doesn’t even have to ask for it. Philip does, of course; it’s only good manners.

Apricots are versatile. They can be tart or they can be sweet, and as with most things, they return how they are treated.

Thomson’s A Dish of Apricots is his most profound novel yet. It challenges, rewards and entertains; it eschews genre and stereotypes; it stimulates thought and contains many insights of life: the genuine luxury of hot water and a soft bed; the irrelevance of “coming out”; and a recognition of the truth of Larkin’s assertion that what will survive of us is love.


An Emotional Rollercoaster

Rated 5.0 out of 5
Wednesday, 23 September, 2020

Absolutely loved this book; one hell of an emotional read. I have read and loved all Mr. Thomson’s books and this one doesn’t disappoint. One minute I was laughing, then I was crying, then shocked, then laughing again. Certain areas of the book ( I won’t give anything away) led me to believe I might need the smelling salts, however the situations were delicately and humorously dealt with so no swooning ensued ! Overall, a book to tug at the heartstrings.


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